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Book Review: Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles… by Ellen Besen, Bryce Hallett (Illustrator)

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Ever since things went bump in the night man has been trying to bring to life the still image. The Neolithics doodled on cave walls. The Persians and Greeks chose vases while in the Orient puppets made their debut (though every culture will argue this and stake their claim as the inventor of puppets). As mankind progressed in its culture, as storytelling refined, the thirst to make the inanimate animate has been unquenchable. The zoetrope, the magic lantern, and the flipbook, have all been steps that have led us down the long winding path of animation. As the motion picture emerged animation began its ascent to legitimacy. Men like Disney gathered talent and paved the way for much of the animation we now accept and understand.

Following along this path is Ellen Besen’s collection of principles written smartly about in her latest title Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writers, Filmmakers, Video Artist, and Game Developer Should Know. In these theories Besen offers insight, direction, and thought for the storyteller and artist alike. Besen shows principles such as caricature and analogy, and basics such as editing and dialogue.

Besen shines in this book. There are several books for the beginning and advancing animator alike on the market and I have read my fair share. None of these books really manage to capture what it is to use animation for what it is designed for – namely, storytelling. Besen delivers in a free manner with straightforward jargon, offering contemporary examples of these techniques in use.

Besen elevates this step a further and offers guidelines that easily translate for the digital explorers as well as traditional animators. Like mathematics these principles are inherent whether the artist is working out of their garage or in a state of the art computer mainframe designing whole digital worlds. Timing and rhythm will carry weight for the video game designer and for the writer alike. Should an animator utilize full animation or limited animation? When should one consider off-screen sound? Is alternative structure appropriate for the shot? Besen gives practical examples of when and when not to use these techniques.

These techniques are vital to an industry plagued by mediocrity. Sure there are giants out there such as Pixar and Disney. Dreamworks manages to pop out the occasional story of quality but these are rare and we instead drown in a sea of pictures such as Battle for Terra and Coraline. Animators, game developers, and the like need to remember the story comes first. Besen is quick to point these techniques to story enhancement. That alone is reason enough to have this book as the foundation for any animation class or creative writing course.

I would be negligent if I did not at least mention illustrator Bryce Hallett’s work that accompanies Besen’s text. Hallett’s examples are additional gems to an overall spectacular book. Hallett’s examples allow perspective without distraction, another rarity for books in this class. Besen and Hallett’s pairing are dynamite and play off each other whimsically with the edge of seriousness the subject deserves.

I find Animation Unleashed to be what every animator, artist, every storyteller needs and cannot recommend it enough for those venturing into the realm of make believe. (I also recommend all of Hollywood read this book and apply the principles Besen lays out. It may help. Just a little.)

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